Excerpt from short story collection Saint Catherine’s Baby.
We flew in from Montréal, with a stopover in Chicago. I combed my hair and smoothed out the incorrigible wrinkles in my pants, before stepping out from the hot taxi into the dry heat of New Mexico.
Bending over to pick up our bag, I noticed the large stain covering the underarm of my white shirt. “Just what I need,” I fretted. “Wrinkled pants, hair that won’t stay down and stinking to high heaven.”
My face felt naked. The sun was beating it into a hot iron. Something was missing. I felt in my shirt pocket and found only damp vacancy.
“Have you seen them?” I asked Rosalita, my lover and confidant.
“Maybe there, in the bag,” she nodded towards our luggage.
“Should I put them on?”
“Go ahead,” she replied. “Take a chance.”
“You sure? You know how some people are.”
“Don’t be so paranoid,” she smirked, laying her hand on the small of my back.
“I’m trusting you on this,” I said, bending down, carefully pulling them out of their hard, plastic case in the side of the bag and placing them firmly on my face.
“Fabulous! Come on, let’s go.”
She took the sacrificial lamb by the arm and led me to the slaughter.
Sweat dripped from my forehead like a steam bath. I thought about home. It was a refreshing 42 degrees Fahrenheit when we had left that morning. Calm, sunny, delightfully cold weather had embraced the landscape, requiring long-sleeve flannel shirts to keep out the chill.
“I’d rather freeze to death, then live in this baking hell,” I thought, as we approached the adobe style home in the suburbs of Albuquerque.
Rosalita’s parents met us at the front door. She introduced her mother and father, Carmen and Francisco Morales and announced lovingly, “And this, this is my sweet Jacque.” I felt her hand guiding me forward.
Her parents looked stoically at their future son-in-law, blinked several times to clear their vision and realized I wasn’t a mirage or distant heat wave. Her mother recovered first, stepping forward and extended her large, brown-skinned hand.
“Buenos tardes Jacque,” she smiled sweetly, as if she was about to give someone on death row their last wish. “Mi casa, su casa.”
“Our house is your house,” Rosalita translated, seemingly oblivious to her parents’ demeanor.
“Thank you,” I replied to Mrs. Morales. “It’s a pleasure.”
Rosalita locked eyes on her father, who appeared to have been jolted into a sudden catatonic state of unknown proportions.
“Papa?” she said. “Papa!” Her raised voice hit him like a whip. He turned, forced a strained smile and shook my hand as if it had a sign reading, “Wet paint.”
“Come in. Come in!” her mother insisted, putting her arm around Rosalita. Her father followed robotically, carrying our bags as balancing weights to keep him grounded. I could feel his eyes flinging poisonous darts at the back of my head like a blow-gun.
It was refreshingly cool inside. “Ah. This is nice,” I sighed. “How can you stand the heat?”
“We kind of like it,” her father said brusquely.
“I guess you get use to it.”
“I guess so,” he said, turning abruptly. With our luggage in tow he walked slowly down their clean, whitewashed hallway. He had large, rough hands and moved as if he was in a military parade.
Mrs. Morales followed her husband. “Let me show you your rooms. You might want to freshen up,” she added, glancing back at the clothes hanging on my body like wet laundry. “Here’s yours,” she motioned to Rosalita, then turned to me. “You can stay in her brothers’ old room. he bathroom’s down the hall. Come out to the back patio when you’re ready. Lunch is almost done.”
“Merci . . . thank you,” I replied.
She nodded, “De nada.” then spoke to Rosalita. “Rico and Junior will be here any minute.” She kissed Rosalita. “Oh no, the enchiladas!” she exclaimed, running to the kitchen in her light green fluorescent pants and pale yellow blouse with ironed on lace.
I looked to Rosalita for an explanation. “Rico and Junior?” I’d heard of Rico and her brother Francis, but no Junior.
“My brother. Francis was named after Papa, so we just call him Junior.”
Mr. Morales squeezed between us. “Excuse me,” he mumbled and disappeared out back.
“This is a disaster,” I said out loud.
“It will be fine. Just give them a little time, OK?”
“Time’s not going to help. Did you see those looks? They don’t even know me and they hate me.”
She gave me a hug. “They don’t hate you. They’re just scared. It’s not every day their only daughter says she’s getting married.”
I tried to ignore my gut. “I hope you’re right.”
“I’ll see you in a few minutes.” She swayed coyly towards the bathroom, her long braided hair rocking in unison with her heart-shaped hips.
After drying off and changing my stained garment to a casual short-sleeved blue dress shirt, I took my skinny self and ventured out to the back patio. A gorgeous garden of blooming cactus filled the yard, with a vine-covered trellis covering the patio from the blistering sun. Her father was hand-watering a small patch of grass between the cactus and patio. He had on a large brimmed, white cowboy hat. He didn’t notice I was there until his wife came out with a basket and offered some bread.
“Have some homemade bread.”
“Thank you,” I replied and proceeded to devour three pieces in a row. “This is delicious.” I licked my fingers, seeing that she was making a religious effort to be cordial. “What is it?”
“Cornbread . . . Jalapeño cornbread. You’ve never had cornbread?”
“Never,” I innocently replied.
“How could you live without cornbread?” Mr. Morales interjected loudly. “Rosalita has surely made you some of her mother’s famous cornbread?”
Her father looked accusingly at Mrs. Morales, who frowned back, shaking her slightly rouged cheeks in utter dismay.
“We eat out mostly,” I explained, “or I cook up something at home. I’m pretty good with a little sauce and some wine.”
“You cook?” Mr. Morales exclaimed, as if I’d told him I was a serial killer. I nodded. “I need a drink,” he exclaimed and headed towards the house. Before disappearing he stopped and turned. “You want a margarita, beer or something?”
“A margarita?” He shook his head in disgust. “Water would be fine, thanks.” He nodded, visibly vexed and went inside.
“Please,” Mrs. Morales motioned towards the flower-decorated picnic table laid out methodically with shiny silverware and maroon and turquoise ceramic dishes. Before the bottom of my fifty/fifty percent nylon and cotton pants touched the wooden bench she asked, “Where are you from Jacque?”
She plunked down directly across the table, leaned forward and waited for me to continue. Her well-rounded, bronzed face had wrinkled crowfeet protecting her knowing eyes, bordered by thick black and gray hair. She sat like a voyeuristic priest, waiting for a secret revelation or confession.
“Montréal. Actually, a little town north of Montréal. I’m sure you haven’t heard of it. It’s called Saínte-Thérèse.”
“I’m sorry,” she smiled. “I don’t know Montréal.”
“It’s in Quebec province. Do you know where that is?”
“It’s in Canada, right?”
I nodded, bemused with Americans’ ignorance of geography.
“But where are you from originally?” she persisted. “Your family . . . your people.”
“We grew up in Saínte-Thérèse. Our parents moved to Toronto for awhile in the early sixties, but didn’t like the crowds, so we moved back to Saínte-Thérèse.”
“No, no. I don’t mean where you grew up.” She shook her head. “Your parents . . . your people?”
“My parents met in Quebec,” I offered. She shook her head and was about to give up when I smelled Rosalita’s sweet fragrance. She hugged me from behind, sat down, looked over at her mother and saw her frustration.
“What’s wrong Mama?”
“Nothing,” her mother said, looking away.
“Your Mom was wondering where I was from. You know; my family and stuff.”
“Mama, shame on you!”
Her mother got up and went towards the house.
“He’s from Iceland!” Rosalita shouted. “Or is it Sweden?” she said to her mother’s back. “One of those bleached white, Northern Anglo families!”
An involuntary sigh escaped from my throat. “I should have seen it coming.”
She gave me a squeeze. “It’s just ignorance.”
“Perhaps,” I replied sadly. “Whoever said ‘ignorance is bliss’ must have been pretty stupid.”
Angry sounds drifted from the kitchen with unintended clarity. We could hear bits and pieces of jumbled distress. “I am not!” her father exclaimed. “You don’t like it any better than I do!”
“Don’t say that!” her mother shouted. “It doesn’t mean a thing to me.”
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Shhhhh . . .” her mother countered.
“How long are we staying . . . a week?” I asked. “By then I’ll have been drawn and quartered or systematically tolerated to death!”